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The tiny mountain kingdom of Lesotho faced yet another year of drought and poor harvests in 2005. The country's first-ever nationwide municipal elections in May were marked by low voter turnout and a lack of clarity concerning the functions and powers of the 129 new village councils.
Lesotho's status as a British protectorate saved it from incorporation into South Africa. Gaining independence in 1966, the country was ruled by King Moshoeshoe II and Prime Minister Leabua Jonathan of the Basotho National Party (BNP). Jonathan annulled the first postindependence election in 1970, and the BNP ruled by decree until a 1986 military coup, after which Moshoeshoe II was given executive powers. Another coup in 1990 saw Moshoeshoe II sent into exile and replaced by his son King Letsie III. Democratic elections in 1993, which resulted in an overwhelming victory for the Basotholand Congress Party (BCP), did not lead to stability. After violent military infighting, assassinations, and the suspension of constitutional rule in 1994, King Letsie III abdicated to allow his father's reinstatement in 1995. He resumed the throne following the accidental death of his father in January 1996. Prime Minister Ntsu Mokhehle left the BCP in 1997 and started a new party, the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD).
Elections for the National Assembly in 1998 touched off yet another crisis of government. Although international observers described the voting as free and fair, the appearance of irregularities and the absence of opposition voices in government prompted demonstrators to reject results that gave the ruling LCD 79 out of 80 constituency seats in parliament with 60.5 percent of the vote. After opposition supporters burned down Maseru's business district and junior military officers staged a mutiny, troops from South Africa and Botswana-under the mandate of the 14country Southern African Development Community (SADC)-were sent to Lesotho at the request of Prime Minster Pakalitha Mosisili. An Interim Political Authority reached an agreement in 1998 that allowed the elected (but highly unpopular) government to retain power, but it stipulated that new elections must be supervised by an independent election commission and include competition for 40 additional, proportionally determined seats in the National Assembly.
Elections under this new system were held in 2002 and saw a turnout of 68 percent of eligible voters. The ruling LCD captured 57.7 percent of votes cast, winning 77 of 80 constituency seats; the Lesotho People's Congress (LPC) won 1 seat; and 2 constituency elections failed. The BNP won 21 of the 40 seats chosen by proportional representation, while the National Independent Party (NIP) and the LPC garnered 5 each. Smaller parties won the remainder. The BNP assumed its seats but has refused to formally accept the election results, filing numerous legal challenges and boycotting several by-elections.
In May 2005, Lesotho held its first-ever nationwide municipal elections. Less than 40 percent of voters cast ballots, a low turnout that opposition parties and civic groups attributed to inadequate voter education and preparation for the polls. While the Independent Electoral Commission did not make the final vote tally available, it revealed a victory for the LCD, followed by independent candidates, the BNP, and the LPC. The precise functions and mandates of the 129 new Village Development Councils were not yet clear, which fueled opposition, and civic leaders voiced concerns that the councils would be powerless and unable to enforce their authority.
Drought has plagued the country since 2001. Lesotho's 2003 winter harvest failed, and rains in early 2004 came too late to save the maize crop, estimated at 68 percent below average. In February 2004, the government declared a state of emergency in the face of the food security crisis and a dramatic rise in HIV/AIDS cases. Citing similar causes, a June 2005 joint World Food Program/Food and Agriculture Organization report found that about 548,000 people would suffer a significant food deficit between June 2005 and March 2006.
Landlocked within South Africa, Lesotho is highly dependent on its powerful neighbor. Its economy is sustained by remittances from its many citizens who work in South African mines. Retrenchments at the mines, however, have contributed to high unemployment in Lesotho. Increased growth in the textile industry, facilitated by preferential access granted to the United States market via the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), has partly offset these losses; however, the end of World Trade Organization textile quotas in January led to the exit of six foreign-owned textile factories from Lesotho. In May 2004, Lesotho successfully lobbied the United States to extend AGOA until 2015. According to the United Nations, some 40 percent of the population remains in absolute poverty. Lesotho's economic problems are compounded by one of the world's highest HIV/AIDS rates, which has lowered average life expectancy to less than 38 years. In November 2005, the government announced a plan to offer free HIV testing to all citizens, the first such program in the world.
Citizens of Lesotho can change their government democratically. Lesotho is a constitutional monarchy in which King Letsie II serves as a ceremonial head of state and is proscribed from political activities. A mixed-member, proportional electoral system-introduced in the May 2002 parliamentary elections-determines the makeup of the 120-seat National Assembly: 80 seats by first-past-the-post constituencies and 40 seats by proportional representation. Under the constitution, the leader of the majority party in the National Assembly automatically becomes prime minister. Elections to the National Assembly take place every five years. The Senate, the upper house of the bicameral legislature, consists of 11 royal appointees and Lesotho's 22 principal traditional chiefs, who still wield considerable authority in rural areas. Any elected government's exercise of its constitutional authority remains limited by the military, the royal family, and traditional clan structures.
Lesotho's major political parties include the LCD, the LPC, the BNP, and the NIP.
The government has aggressively pursued criminal charges against state officials and multinational corporations engaged in corrupt practices. The Canadian construction conglomerate Acres International was convicted in September 2002 in Lesotho's high court of corrupt practices associated with the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, a multibillion-dollar dam and watershed project; the World Bank later banned the company from new contracts for a three-year period. Lesotho was ranked 70 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The government generally respects freedom of speech and of the press. Several independent newspapers operate freely and routinely criticize the government, while state-owned print and broadcast media tend to reflect the views of the ruling party. There are four private radio stations, and extensive South African radio and television broadcasts reach Lesotho. However, government critics in the media are subject to extremely high libel penalties, and several libel and defamation proceedings occurred in 2005. Journalists are occasionally harassed or attacked, which leads to some self-censorship. The government does not restrict internet access.
Freedom of religion in this predominantly Christian country is generally respected. The government does not restrict academic freedom.
Freedom of assembly and association is generally respected. Several nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate openly, including the Lesotho Council of NGOs (LECONGO), an umbrella body of civic organizations. While labor rights are constitutionally guaranteed, the labor and trade union movement is weak and fragmented; many employers in the textile sector do not allow trade union activity. Many mineworkers are members of the powerful South African National Union of Mineworkers.
Courts are nominally independent, but higher courts are especially subject to outside influence. The large backlog of cases often leads to lengthy delays in trials and lengthy pretrial detention. Mistreatment of civilians by security forces reportedly continues. Prisons are dilapidated, severely overcrowded, and lack essential health services; instances of torture and excessive force were reported. From 2001 to 2003, 90 prisoners died at Lesotho's largest prison, according to a government commission of inquiry. Citizens are protected against government infringements on their rights by an independent ombudsman office.
Tensions between the Basotho and the small Chinese business community have led to instances of minor violence.
The constitution bars gender-based discrimination, but customary practice and law still restrict women's rights in several areas, including property rights and inheritance. Lesotho's constitution perpetuates the minority status of Basotho women married under customary law; such women are considered legal minors while there husbands are alive, may not enter into binding contracts, and have no standing in civil courts. Domestic violence is reportedly widespread, but is becoming increasingly socially unacceptable. Women's rights organizations have highlighted the importance of women's participation in the democratic process as part of a broader effort to educate women about their rights under customary and common law. Out of 120 parliamentary seats, just 13 are held by women. A constitutional amendment reserves a third of the total seats in the new municipal councils for women.
A study released in April 2005 and commissioned by UNICEF and the Ministry of Gender, Youth, Sport and Recreation found abuse of child domestic laborers- including sexual abuse-to be a significant problem. In June, members of parliament began debate on a new bill that seeks to address issues concerning AIDS orphans and vulnerable children, including protecting family property, facilitating adoption, and monitoring child and substance abuse. A 2002 study found Lesotho to be home to more than 70,000 AIDS orphans.